Gangs and gang-related activities are serious problems in American society. Books like Snitch, by Allison van Diepen, show that gangs are infiltrating almost every part of America and are leading to the proliferation of drugs, weapons, and human trafficking. However, gangs are not just talked about in novels like Snitch. Gangs are real, as I learned when interviewing a former gangbanger. Gangs have made such an impact on the people whose lives are directly affected by them, that poetry has been written about gangs. Many research organizations have studied gangs, showing that the problem needs to be addressed immediately. The problem is that gangs are as much of a symptom as they are a cause of problems. Gangs would not exist if there were more legitimate means to form communities and identities. In particular, gangs reflect underlying social injustice, related primarily to ethnicity and poverty. There are also legislative issues that contribute to the proliferation and power of gangs, such as the criminalization of drugs and prostitution. Gangs provide a means for people to make money on the black market, too, because the society puts too much pressure on people to possess things, instead of valuing intangible things like peace or harmony. Therefore, the way to solve the problem of gangs is to address the underlying social injustice and eliminate the myth of the American Dream.
A chronology of gangs shows that the changes to gangs reflect changes to the social, economic, and political conditions. For example, in the 1800s, there were gangs due to the large influx of immigrants ("A Timeline of Chicago's Gangs," n..d). When the immigrants came from Europe, they encountered poor working conditions and prejudice from the local people that made it hard for groups like the Irish to integrate into the community. With no political, economic, or social empowerment, the Irish gangs became part of the American landscape. As more and more people moved to the cities during industrialization and urbanization, gangs became even more common. There were more issues that made it easier for gangs to be successful, such as prohibition. During prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, it became profitable to sell bootleg alcohol on the black market. Gangs have historically controlled the black market economy, which gives the gang members a means to make money. The amount of money possible to make on the black market far exceeds the amount of money that can be made doing low-wage factory work.
Because the American Dream is unattainable by most individuals, some will inevitably turn to illegitimate activities to try and fulfill that dream. The American Dream is a myth, but it is still perpetuated in the society based on consumerism. There are pressures on individuals to have social status through wealth, and if that wealth cannot be accumulated in a low-wage position, then many individuals will locate social status elsewhere -- in gangs. Gangs provide a means by which to acquire social status and also to acquire money. Illicit activities such as weapons trafficking, prostitution or sex trafficking, drug dealing, and counterfeiting schemes are all businesses that gangs may be involved in. These businesses can be lucrative, much more lucrative than most low-wage and unskilled positions. Gangbangers would not be in gangs if there was no incentive. Incentive for money, power, and prestige are sufficient reasons to join gangs. Because many of the people who join gangs do not have access to a high quality education because of living in impoverished communities, it makes sense that young people would see gangs as an alternative to working at Wal*Mart.
As changes occurred in American society during the 20th century, the shape and nature of gangs also changed. For example, cities grew exponentially. There was a greater ethnic diversity in the cities, as more and more African-Americans left the rural south for big cities like St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. In these cities, there was a lot of social stratification related to socio-economic status, race and ethnicity. There was no means to integrate into the community, and the dominant culture began to stigmatize all those who were not white and rich. Research shows that, "unmet needs drove many youths to join gangs, as did greed and fear," (Carlie) Those unmet needs include a sense of community belonging, as well as the need to improve one's income and social status. Proof of the fact that gangs fulfill unmet needs related to community belonging can be seen in Snitch. The gangs wear colors to show their allegiances and identities. People join gangs for a variety of reasons, including a lack of other options for social support. In speaking with Nick Parker, I also learned that he didn't have enough support from someone, such as a mentor, to tell him dropping out of school is a bad idea. Parker stated that the gang members were the people who made him feel a sense of belonging. There were few other options to feel cool, accepted, and motivated. Parker's experiences and the experiences of the characters in Snitch show that when needs like belonging, esteem, and self-actualization are not being met; and also when the need for material comfort is not being met, it is likely that individuals will turn to gangs. Research supports this claim based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Carlie).
The causes of gang life are related to social injustice, but the effects of gangs are devastating on the communities that are hurt the most by social injustice. Thus, gangs create a vicious cycle that prevents people and communities from improving. With gang life comes criminality, which means that young people can be locked up in prison and forever labeled as a criminal. Being locked up or sent to juvenile hall with other like-minded individuals can foster more criminal behavior, rather than healing that behavior. The result is the proliferation of gangs where they are doing the most damage. Moreover, gangs prevent communities from empowering themselves as law enforcement views the entire community as a problem area. This has been the case in areas like Compton and East LA, which have been notorious for gang life. When gangs take over the local economy, it becomes difficult for a legitimate economy to take root in that area. Gangs also destroy the ability of young people to leave that scene; many become trapped for fear of being labeled a "snitch," like Julia is in the novel Snitch. The gangs control people's lives, almost the way a cult does. My interview with Parker demonstrates that once a person is in a gang, it can be hard to get out of one. A lifetime of criminal behavior is the outcome.
Violence and drug addiction are also outcomes of gang life. According to Hunt and Laidler, alcohol is used as a "social lubricant" and as a "cohesive mechanism." This function of alcohol leads to addiction. Drugs lead to similar problems, with additions that can last a lifetime and destroy personal health and family life. In some cases, addiction leads to death. Gangs can exacerbate the underlying problems in the community, by making it normative to do drugs in response to personal problems and pain. The drugs as a "social lubricant" and "cohesive mechanism" makes it so that people who do not use drugs have a harder time fitting in with the community. People might even suspect the non-users as being potential "snitches." When young people become involved with drugs and gang life, they usually destroy their chances of gaining legitimate success that can lead to self-improvement and community health.
In addition to drug addiction, violence is a problem with gangs. Gangs use violence as a core means of protecting their people and their "turf." Violence is a core element of gang life, and it makes the members feel powerful. The poem I read for this research shows that violence is one of the biggest problems in gang life, and that the possession of weapons directly causes people to use those weapons. Often casualties occur that were unintended, leading to much pain in the community. The pain of losing loved ones can then be temporarily assuaged by using drugs, a situation that only leads to the vicious cycle revolving over and over. Just as drugs are lucrative, so too are weapons. Selling weapons is a big business for gangs, and it can be hard to leave the economic security that comes from illegal drugs and weapons trafficking.
If the causes of gangs can be traced to social injustice, then social justice should be the solution to the problem of gangs. The solution to gangs seems far out of reach, but is not impossible to implement when the root causes are recognized. Solutions entail both personal level solutions such as mentoring individual youth, and public level solutions such as investing in poor communities and promoting education and legitimate self-employment. It is important for people to have means other than black market activities to make money, which is why the economic empowerment…